By Caleb Michael Sarvis
I’ve rewritten this opening a dozen times. There were mentions of “episode 6 begins as most…” and “Darius holding a fold-out map is perfectly…” and “Atlanta challenges the defining lines between ‘episode’ and ‘short-film’…”
Actually, let’s start there. Because episode 6, “Teddy Perkins”, does exactly that. What is presented and marketed as an episode of television is better understood as a short film. It runs 41 minutes long without a single commercial interruption, leading us down a path of increasing tension, story-building, and several bursts of “What the fuck is happening here?”
If there were an episode of Atlanta to workshop, this is it. Darius is our chosen-one in the show’s third straight bottle episode, and he wants a piano with colored-keys he heard about through a friend on an anonymous message-board. This takes him to the home of Benny Hope, a once-famous musician, and his caretaker brother, Teddy-Perkins. Teddy is credited as playing himself, but it is obvious Donald Glover has undergone extensive make-up and mask work to create a character that alludes to our latter impressions of the late Michael Jackson. Teddy claims Benny will not be joining them, because of a rare skin condition, and Darius begins to think Teddy and Benny are one in the same.
As a genre, I’ve never been much of a fan. Horror films are rarely any good in terms of story, and the nature of it – fear as a moving emotion for a reader – has never meant much to me. What am I to get out of fear, other than my own pleasure with having finished the tale?
Stephen King said, “We make up horrors to help us cope with real ones,” and in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley said, “There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand.”
I’m doing my best to embrace the concept. What these two quotes do for me as a viewer is provide me the lenses with which to find merit in horror. In “Teddy Perkins”, Atlanta seems to be confronting something pervasive in our own culture and society – something frightening – but operating beneath the surface, beneath our immediate recognition. It takes that thing boiling beneath and pulls it into view by transforming Donald Glover into Teddy Perkins, a visual manifestation of an unacknowledged horror. The show’s embrace of real-life allusions (Michael Jackson, Sammy Sosa, Get Out), and the way fame can shape us psychologically is an interesting critique. There’s something about the way the masses will feed upon individuals we deem valuable, and the shape of the carcasses we leave behind when we’re done.
What are humans if not monsters? We all just feed in our distinct way.
I don’t want to be trite about conflict and tension in story, but horror is flushed with both, and when it’s acting as a larger mirror for society as a whole, it can prove to be quite reflective – when executed correctly. Teddy is the product of his father’s abuse, of a pressure so intense it could mold a diamond. It’s a story of family.
I quoted Frankenstein above to help me gauge horror, but the classic novel is really one of romance, of existential loneliness, of which Stephen King said, “Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is a poor synonym.” Horror molds the abstract of our fears into something tangible for the audience to digest.
On Character Development Through Parallels
Darius is the most aloof and least-known character in Atlanta. This has never been much of an issue. One of his first lines on the show was, “Where’s the dog with the Texas on it?” and we’ve mostly been content to let him exist as comedic relief since. He’s had moments of insight, moments of frustration, but even when we opened the season and Darius and Alfred weren’t on speaking terms, we didn’t worry ourselves too much, not like we had when Van was absent for an extended period of time or Earn felt edged out by Tracy.
There’s a moment after we learn about Teddy and Benny’s upbringing, in which Teddy praises his father’s abuse. He claims that children have no real means of motivating themselves, and that great art comes from that pain, that sacrifice. The episode opens and closes with two different Stevie Wonder tracks, and Teddy points to Stevie’s blindness as proof of that idea. “He was blind, but he wasn’t blinded,” Darius says. “Not everything is a sacrifice.” The debate parallels their earlier discussions about rap’s adolescence, when Darius says, “Sometimes people just want to have fun.”
He follows with, “Your dad should’ve said sorry,” and “I went through daddy shit myself.”
This is perhaps the most insight we’ve been given to Darius in the sixteen episodes this series has aired, and it’s when both his ankles and wrists are handcuffed, a gun pointed his way. He’s vulnerable and endearing despite the stakes, and openly dismissive of Teddy’s point of view. The slight parallel between he and Teddy’s upbringing (minus the fame) allows Darius’s character to grow in the audience’s eyes. I imagine without the ingredients of “Teddy Perkins”, we may not have ever caught this side of him.
Two things working for me:
Details, details, details. Darius uses a fold-out road map instead of GPS. Teddy serves a boiled ostrich egg. The machine we thought was an intercom with which to communicate to a butler is simply a recording device. The piano’s keys were colored in. The message boards were anonymous. Details are the grooves that make the texture of a story, and every detail in “’Teddy Perkins” may not have been necessary but contributes to the feeling we leave with. At the end, when it does appear that Benny and Teddy are two different people, we aren’t given much confirmation. We assume the man in the rags and wheelchair was Benny, but there’s no way for us to know for certain. He kills Teddy and shoots himself dead. The ambiguity is nice and leaving the bow untied leaves us with more to sit with afterward.
Two things I’m not sold on:
Darius’ motivation to buy the piano makes sense to me. As I mentioned before, he’s an aloof character. However, I don’t know if that’s enough to keep him there. When the elevator moves past the first floor and into the basement, Darius mutters, “Okay, Destiny.” So, sure, he’s resigned himself to fate, but he could’ve have jumped ship at any moment. What’s really keeping him there? It appears Benny could have ridden the elevator at any moment, and while he couldn’t retrieve the gun himself, he could have armed himself otherwise (as Darius does with the fire poker). What was keeping him trapped before all of this?
Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the author of Looney Purgatory or (i don’t have the stamina for that kind of faith) (Carbon Books 2018). He is the fiction editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine and received his MFA from the University of Tampa. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, Saw Palm, Panhandler Magazine, Eyeshot, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @calebmsarvis